The BBC has just done more to eradicate ‘terrorism’ than all our wars since 9/11

You can say that without being utterly facetious

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The Independent Online

The head of BBC Arabic has advised his staff not to label anyone, or any act, as “terrorist”. So, Said Kouachi: not a terrorist. Boko Haram: not a group of terrorists. 9/11: not a terrorist atrocity. The term is “too loaded”, says the BBC’s Tarik Kafala, who prefers to call a bombing a bombing, a massacre a massacre, and a plane flying into a tower… an ideologically motivated attack, I suppose.

There are complications here, to be sure, but isn’t the most immediate reaction one of relief? With a small shift in editorial policy, it would seem the BBC has done more to “eradicate terrorism” than 14 years of war put together. You can say that, I think, without being utterly facetious.

The world won’t be safer in a literal sense, of course; Isis and al-Qaeda will butcher regardless of the term a BBC newsroom applies. But, minus the “terrorism” tag, the threat from groups like these feels somehow less monstrous, more manageable. Tally up the achievements of the “war on terror” since 9/11, meanwhile, and you get… not a great deal. In the failures column must go a fivefold increase in deaths from terrorism, according to the latest survey from the Global Terrorism Index.

One doubt: does the refusal to say “terrorism” offer a false sense of security? No. If anything, Western citizens vastly overestimate the scale of the threat. A Briton, thankfully, has about as much chance of dying in a suicide bombing as they do through slipping on a banana skin. Lose the word “terrorism” and it might help us find some perspective, in fact.

Another doubt: is it a form of self-censorship, or a shirking of the journalist’s duty to call things how they are? Again, no. The UN has struggled to agree on a hard and fast definition for “terrorism” for more than a decade. The key ingredients include death and destruction, outside the rules of international law and for a political purpose. But that remains broad, and in practice, most people go with a variant of: “I know it when I see it.”

Which means that attacks carried out by non-Muslims often slip out of the “terrorism” picture: after the Charlie Hebdo killings, a former director of the CIA tweeted that this was the “worst” attack in Europe since the 2005 London bombings. He had either forgotten that Anders Breivik murdered 77 people in Norway, or didn’t associate white men with primeval scaremongering.

Two more points. We don’t report on murderers as “avengers”, even though revenge might have guided their hand. Why, then, support groups that aim to sow terror by including that term in their title? If you weren’t terrified enough by, say, the Boston bombings, to see that word flashed across television after television after newspaper might easily have finished the job.

And in that nexus of fear governments also get spooked. War; CIA torture; even, less dramatically, the proposed Snooper’s Charter – the path to each is smoothed by a desire to stamp out “terrorism”. Would we react so ferociously if BBC Arabic’s calming rule was taken up more widely? Perhaps yes. But theirs is the only war on “terrorism” I wholly support.